All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: I Am Change by Suzy Zail

I Am Change
Suzy Zail
Black Dog Books
2019, 340p
Personally purchased copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

They told her that her body belonged to men and her mind didn’t matter. They were wrong.

“What if I don’t want to marry?” Lilian held her breath. She had never said the words out loud. “Not want to marry?” Her aunt frowned. “What else would you do?”

Set in a Ugandan village, Lilian has learned to shrink herself to fit other people’s ideas of what a girl is. In her village a girl is not meant to be smarter than her brother. A girl is not meant to go to school or enjoy her body or decide who to marry. Especially if she is poor.

Lilian has the misfortune to be born a girl in a Ugandan village. All she wants to do is go to school, complete her education and become a teacher or maybe an author. She has these big dreams but because she’s female, it’s likely she’ll be married off in her teens, not long after she becomes a ‘woman’. Her older brother experiences so much more freedom than she does and is waited on hand and foot, experiencing the sort of privilege Lilian can only dream about.

Fortunately for Lilian, she has a father that understands her desire to learn and even though things are hard and he spends most of his time working away, he tries hard to come up with the money for Lilian’s school fees so that she can continue to learn. Even though there are people in her life who encourage her, like her father, like a female teacher at school, Lilian still faces hardships as a young female student at school in Uganda.

This book is a nice little reality check, for how much I take my education for granted. That school, which was something that I just had to do, almost like a chore most of the time, is something that other kids actually dream about getting to do. Lilian is so desperate to go to school, it seems like such a simple thing. But in her world, money for education is spent on boys so that they might one day provide for a wife and raise a family. Girls get married and have their own children, they don’t need such extravagances. Lilian’s mother is a woman who has seen some hard times and she’s determined to preserve her culture and instruct Lilian so that she may as well. She doesn’t understand her daughter, who dreams of something more. Who has no interest in getting married, especially not to someone she doesn’t know and love. Her life is marked by tragedy – the disappearance of one of her older sisters, who like Lilian, did not want marriage and the death of a younger sister, who did not make it past infancy. These events colour her mother’s treatment of her and Lilian’s despair of ever being seen and understood by her mother is so terribly sad at times.

This book was inspired by the stories of 30 real Ugandan girls, who spoke with the author of their experiences. It is those experiences that are used to shape Lilian’s story, of a girl who wants to learn, and the things which girls in Uganda experience. Purity is worshipped and Lilian’s mother is militant about telling her to not ever talk to boys, or let boys look at her. Girls can have their reputations ruined – they alone endure the fallout and some of them are abused by men who are twice their age, taking liberties in exchange for offering starving girls some extra food. One of Lilian’s school friends swaps favours for stationery from rich boys and offers to help ‘hook Lilian up’ in the same way. But Lilian isn’t interested in that, she has a crush on one of her brother’s friends and dreams of them being together one day, him a doctor and her a respected author. She is sure he will be different to others, who expect their wives to stay at home and cook and clean and tend the children that arrive, perpetuating the cycle that Lilian longs to escape.

So much value is placed on marrying Lilian off at what is considered the “right” time – when she’s still young enough to attract a high bride price. She will essentially still be a young teen, fourteen or fifteen years old. The would-be grooms are generally much older, as much as twice the girl’s age. Marrying before sixteen is illegal in Uganda but like several other things in this novel, there appears ways around it. Lilian is taken to her aunt to learn how to please a man and the inference seems to be that Lilian’s aunt will be in the room her first time, to make sure she’s taken her lessons well and that she can provide instruction if need be. Which is horrific in and of itself but in Lilian’s aunt’s day, the aunt would have sex with her new groom in front of her and show her exactly how it was done. There’s not a single bit of emphasis on how a new groom must please his wife and it seems the best thing Lilian can hope for is a husband who at least doesn’t beat her. Every single time she kind of gets a ‘win’ in her determination to finish school, it ends up being one step forward and two steps back.

Imagine fighting to go to school and then when you win the fight, having to spend a week out of every month at home, because you can’t go when you have your period. They can’t afford proper sanitary napkins or the like and many girls use leaves. Apparently in their culture it appears to be terribly bad if boys or men catch even a glimpse of leaked menstrual blood and so the girls spend the time they have their periods at home, missing out on almost a quarter of the learning. It makes it difficult for them to keep up with the male students, which would seem to just further perpetuate the divide. Girls also leave as they get married, leaving the numbers very unbalanced. For girls like Lilian, completing her education isn’t just about finding the money, which is difficult enough in itself, meaning her father must work long hours far from home. It’s also about overcoming cultural expectations, keeping herself strong against the pressure to marry.

I really loved the experience of reading this book. It’s made me search out the stories of other women and girls from Uganda. This book also includes a foreword from one of the women the author met with, who told her story which is incredible. Especially about how she feels, seeing a story she recognises and relates to, on paper.

This is wonderful, confronting, amazing, heartbreaking in some parts but also incredibly feel good in other parts. It’s a huge rollercoaster ride of a book.

9/10

Book #172 of 2019

I Am Change is the 66th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

It’s also the 4th book completed for my Mate-A-Thon Challenge.

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